Do You Want A Cheerleader or Critic as Mentor?

While we think we choose our mentors based on their expertise, competence, and experience, a new study shows that we usually go more with our gut than our head.

That means we choose a person who shows enthusiasm for us and our goals, according to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Their evidence? Karaoke. And the popular singing competition show “The Voice.”

Now in its 18th season, “The Voice” is a “really extreme version of life,” said researcher Dr. Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Yet the high stakes environment is ideal for studying decision-making, she noted.

“For the purposes of the research, it was perfect,” said Ruttan, who worked with Drs. Julia Hur of New York University and Catherine Shea of Carnegie Mellon University on the study. “We think that our findings apply to a wide range of contexts and all sorts of advising relationships.”

On the show, contestants first go through “blind auditions,” performing before a panel of four coaches whose chairs are turned away from the singer. A coach signals they’re interested in working with a singer by turning their chair towards them, displaying a message that says, “I want you.”

Singers and coaches next have a brief on-stage chat. Singers with more than one interested coach must then choose who will coach them for the rest of the competition.

For their study, the researchers analyzed and coded four early seasons of the show. They discovered a significant correlation between the enthusiasm coaches showed for a contestant and the likelihood the contestant would choose them. A coach’s track record in coaching other successful contestants played less of a factor, according to the study’s findings.

That result flew in the face of a separate experiment in which the researchers interviewed aspiring contestants while they lined up to apply for a spot on the show, according to the researchers. Not yet in the spotlight, those people ranked enthusiasm significantly below experience and expertise in the qualities they would want in a coach.

Other lab-based experiments confirmed the “prediction error” between what people say they want in an advisor and the way they ultimately choose them, the researchers reported.

In another experiment, the researchers also tested how people select advisors for their professional careers.

According to Ruttan, the findings are useful because quality mentorship has become increasingly important in the pursuit of personal and professional goals. Setting up a checklist of priorities in advance may help people choose job coaches, educational supervisors, financial advisors, and others more wisely, she advised.

Besides that, their choice “may actually be consequential for performance,” she said.

In a final experiment, lab volunteers sang the popular karaoke song “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey twice, receiving feedback in between the performances from randomly assigned advisors who were also professional musicians. An advisor’s enthusiasm made no difference the second time, but singers who got feedback from those with specific expertise in vocal music showed better subsequent performance, the experiment showed..

While the research was extremely time-consuming, Ruttan said it ranks among her favorites.

“It’s not often that you get to include reality TV and karaoke in a single paper,” she said.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Source: University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management

Photo: Rachel Ruttan is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Credit: Rachel Ruttan.

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